An Interview with Carol Rabe

Carole Rabe Blue Window oil on canvas 24" x 18" 2010

Carole Rabe paints her immediate surroundings, endlessly inspired by the geometry of her home's interior spaces and the way daylight entering these rooms can lend them both richness of color and a feeling of comfort and peace.

You can find out more about Carole Rabe at her website and at the Powers Gallery website.

TD: In comparing some different approaches to paintings of domestic interiors, your work stands out for its warmth and personal feeling. In Vermeer’s interiors, the women are painted with an almost majestic calm, while Wilhelm Hammershoi’s wife seems eerily quiet and self-contained. Fairfield Porter portrays his family life with vivid form and design, but from somewhat of an emotional distance- I don’t get a good read on their personalities. 

I’m trying to figure out how you are able to suggest more of a real human presence than Porter without actually including any figures. Do you think it’s because, as you say, you have a strong emotional connection to these rooms you paint, and if so, how do you happen to have such strong feelings for these rooms? Did you raise a family there, or is this house very special to you for other reasons? 

CR: Mostly I see the implied human presence in my work as a result of my personality. A sense of place is important to me. My family is from a small town in central Massachusetts and I grew up surrounded by a large extended family. Most of them remain in that same small town. And I didn’t move far. My husband and I did raise our son, 21, in this house.

Carole Rabe Divided Room oil on canvas 18" x 24" 2009

Porter painted when abstraction was at its height. He painted representationally in defiance of what critics were saying and other artists were doing, and worked as “abstractly” as abstract painters did. Hammershoi was working in what I imagine were very frigid dark rooms with cold Northern light. Vermeer painted quiet and light that infused his studio amidst a busy household. All of these painters had something else: a wife to take care of the household and children that afforded the artists the time and peace they needed to create. So I think it was easy for these male artists to distance themselves from family life as they painted.

Carole Rabe Round Table oil on canvas 24" x 28" 2009

I think that one’s subject matter, while extremely important, is ultimately what we “hang” our paint on. It is a shape or a certain light that attracts me to a view first. I do have an attachment to the things around me because most of them have been handed down from my (or my husband’s) grandparents or have been found on a street corner! 

TD: You received an MFA in painting from the Boston University College of Fine Arts. Were you pleased with your painting education? Can you name some of your favorite teachers from either your undergraduate years or Boston University? 

CR: My undergraduate years took place during the conceptual art movement; I painted while my peers wrote treatises. In hindsight, it was a good experience in that it gave me resolve to keep painting and forced me to really think about what I was doing and why. Graduate school (14 years following undergrad) was a period of tremendous growth and I am glad I was at a place like BU that saw painting as a journey; we, as artists, were part of a continuum. It was a luxury to have my own studio with long uninterrupted blocks of time to paint, and to be surrounded by intense creativity. 

My favorite teachers were James Weeks, who understood color and was able to explain it so well; Robert D’Arista, who was reflective and philosophical; Joseph Ablow, perceptive and knowledgeable; and Arthur Polonsky, who gave me the freedom to not have to analyze or question everything.

Carole Rabe Dried Hydrangeas oil on canvas 28" x 22" 2010

TD: You have been painting for a while. Could you discuss how your work has changed over the years? Have you painted figures or landscapes in the past? Did you have a phase of working abstractly? Have you ever felt pressured to paint in a specific style, or to use a certain subject matter? 

CR: I painted mostly landscape in graduate school and for quite a few years following. I worked in Maine for many summers and loved the cold clear light up there. My early work was flatter, with simpler shapes and less tonal subtleties along with heavier, more opaque paint application. My subject matter changed when I had a child and I could no longer traipse into the woods for hours on end and paint. I decided to work within the limitations of parenthood and started painting what was around the house. I discovered that I loved the geometry and the complex spaces of interior/exterior views. I have always worked from direct observation because I get the information I need from seeing. I just can’t paint from photographs—they don’t tell me enough.

Carole Rabe Orange Interior oil on canvas 28" x 22" 2010

I find the idea of limitations an exciting challenge and continue to “limit” myself more and more. How few colors can I use? How narrow a value range can I use? How simple a space can I paint and find what is remarkable about it? 

I think a lot about relationships as I paint—between colors, tones, shapes, edges. I carry on a dialogue in my head, asking: Warmer? Cooler? Darker? Lighter? What’s alike? What’s different? Sharper? Softer? Oil paint is so versatile. 

I have never worked abstractly (except in exercises at school) nor have I ever felt pressured to paint in any specific style or use a certain subject matter.

Carole Rabe Early Morning Light Sam's Room oil on canvas 24" x 20" 2012

TD: Is your house your favorite place, or just your favorite place to paint? Do you ever worry about running out of rooms to paint? Do you sometimes paint at another location? 

CR: My house started out as a convenient place to paint due to time constraints with a full-time teaching job and a family—and has grown to be my favorite place to paint. I never worry about running out of rooms to paint because every season, every hour the spaces change. I might explore deeper space for a while, then pull in and describe shallower, more still life-like spaces. So the variety is endless.

Carole Rabe Paper Whites oil on canvas 20" x 16" 2008 

TD: Do you like having the house empty so you can fully concentrate? 

CR: My house is never empty; I have learned to paint with distractions. I would love to have my house empty and be able to leave my paints set up in the hallway for weeks!

TD: I’ve read that you’ve said as you grow older, you’ve become increasingly interested in “how the human eye perceives things and how the hand and heart work together to put them on paper.’’ I completely relate to this statement, as it seems increasingly important to me as well to have that strong emotional connection to my work. Here’s a dicey question for you: Do you ever speculate as to whether it is more essential to women artists to have a personal connection to a subject than it is to a male artist? 

CR: No, I don’t think it’s more important to women artists. I see little difference between how men paint and how women paint. I think female artists are often in danger of having their work considered “sentimental”, which is different than “emotional”. Sentimental has negative connotations, I think. Honestly, earlier in my career I had been a little afraid of being labeled “a suburban female artist who paints pretty flowers in vases sitting in pretty rooms”. As I have matured as an artist, I realized that I can only be true to myself and paint what interests me—and the irony is that I do paint flowers in vases in rooms, yet the paintings aren’t really much about that at all. My work is accessible on many levels and I am happy to have viewers bring their perspective.

Carole Rabe Kitchen Window Reflection oil on canvas 20" x 16" 2011

TD: The quality of the light entering through windows into the rooms you paint is just as important as the compositions you choose. Often the sun is shining, creating rectangles and trapezoids of warmth on the floors and wall and bouncing reflected light all around. This kind of lighting changes very rapidly, not unlike the landscape painter’s worry about the sun moving across the sky. How do you deal with shifting and changing light conditions? 

CR: I have about six paintings going at the same time that correspond to the time of day and the weather/season. I stop painting when the light changes drastically and return to it another day, so my paintings really capture a slice of time that is about 1 ½ hours long maximum. I never finish in one shot; I probably return about 6 times and on average take about 12 hours per painting. That doesn’t mean I am applying paint for 12 hours; that means I am thinking and looking before applying paint.

Carole Rabe Winter Sunlight oil on canvas 24" x 18" 2010

TD: Your brushwork has a spontaneous quality, but the compositions in your paintings are complex. Do you work out the composition with a drawing before you begin painting? If not, do you draw the composition on the canvas with paint, wipe out and redraw as necessary until you are satisfied? 

CR: I use a viewfinder and make very quick sketches on paper before beginning, but most of the composition is worked out on the canvas by drawing with ultramarine blue paint (it’s weak and doesn’t modify subsequent paint colors), redrawing and wiping out as necessary. I also sometimes work by starting in the middle of the painting with a focal point (such as a vase) and then moving out from there. 

TD: Do you tone the canvas first? What kind of brushes do you use? Can you name the colors on your palette? 

CR: I always work on a toned canvas—sometimes it’s a pretty bright color like hot pink or turquoise, other times muted. Gamblin is my preferred brand of oil paint. I use no medium—only a little turpentine to thin paint as needed. 

I work with a different set of colors for each painting, usually a triad--three colors plus white. I might introduce another color as the painting nears the end and I need a little color boost. My palette might be: Cadmium Orange, Viridian, and Mars Violet plus Titanium-Zinc White; or Cadmium Lemon, Rose Madder, and Cerulean Blue plus white; or Yellow Ochre, Cobalt Violet, and Permanent Green Light plus white. I don’t use many earth colors and I never use black. I really enjoy trying different color combinations, creating surprising color relationships. 

I use hog bristle brushes, medium quality, nothing fancy, and have a lot of them, usually having four or five brushes loaded at the same time. I like “flats” which give me an active stroke and hold a lot of paint.

Carole Rabe Summer Melon oil on canvas 24" x 30" 2009

TD: Please name some of your favorite painters and tell us why you like them. 

CR: Vermeer for his sense of intimacy; Chardin for his exquisite perfect compositions; Alice Neel for her unflinching eye; Jenny Saville for her spectacular paint handling; Paula Modersohn-Becker for her touchLucian Freud for his ability to draw with paint; Hopper for his ability to create atmosphere and describe emotion; and last but not least Bonnard for his ability to transform paint into space, color, and light.

Carole Rabe Countertop Reflection oil on canvas 24"x24" 2008

TD: You are the director of the Hess Gallery and Assistant Professor of Visual Arts at Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hill, MA. Does either of these jobs give you inspiration for your own work? Are you happy with the amount of time you have for painting? 

I enjoy teaching and am always excited as my students learn to see—that’s primarily what my teaching is about. Teaching something helps to reconnect you to the essentials and that can be helpful when I am struggling in a painting. My students and I discover and grow together. I have met so many different types of artists through my job as a gallery director; I have made many new friends and have a large artists’ network in the Boston area.

It is tough to find time to paint; teaching is very demanding. I am extremely disciplined and use my time wisely. That’s one of the reasons I recently started making night paintings—it was the only time I had to paint during the school year! My summers are devoted exclusively to painting.

Carole Rabe Plants oil on canvas 16"x20" 2008

TD: What other artistic disciplines do you enjoy? What do you enjoy besides painting? 

 I play the piano (classical and show tunes) rather badly, but I enjoy it. I am a voracious reader; I like novels rich in descriptive careful observation of places and I think reading helps me to see. I also like to hike in the woods and run, providing exercise and time to think.

TD: Thank you Carole Rabe! 

You can find out more about Carole Rabe at her website and at the Powers Gallery website.


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